"That will be all for now," the king said. "You have leave, gentlemen." They bowed. "Hisui, stay a moment." Hisui paused, and the secretaries and chamberlains made their reverences to him and passed from the room in order.
Goukou stood up from his throne and stretched achingly. "I'm feeling my age, old friend. It seems affairs of state were not this burdensome half a year ago."
"Much has changed since that time," Hisui said sombrely.
"Changed indeed," the king replied, face dark. Five months now since the dragon kings of the oceans had severed all ties to the court of the Jade Emperor after the death of Lord Goujun in Heaven. To judge by the grim line of Goukou's mouth the upheavals resulting from that decision were still taking their toll of the king's spirit. And the king's spirit was already bruised from what went before... Hisui remembered briefly those agonizing minutes on the ramparts outside his offices, talons digging into his palms as he squinted up at the two tiny forms in the sky. He'd kept his mind blank and his breathing steady and waited through what seemed a dragging eternity. His Majesty will come back. He concentrated on the certainty of that like a mantra, but still was nearly unmanned by relief when he saw the king return, and not alone. He'd known then that whatever happened afterwards, however long it might take for the world to go back to normal, he could endure.
"Have you company for your siesta or will you sleep?" the king was asking him.
"Sleep, I thank your Majesty. This was a wearisome audience." Another delegation of Celestials come to ask the Kings back to Heaven, their attitude somewhere between arrogance and pleading, like children abandoned by their protector. They'd left again empty-handed, and would likely be back next day or next week, importunate and demanding. He sighed unconsciously.
"I too. Come share my rest with me."
They proceeded to Goukou's apartments where his servants removed their court robes, sponged them down with citrus water, and wrapped them in wadded chamber gowns. There was tea, apricots, and small biscuits as refreshments. Goukou drank half a cup of tea but soon put it down, stifling a yawn. Hisui accompanied him to the bed that Shenzen held open, lay down beside him at his signal, and waited while the chamberlain covered them both and withdrew. The king turned on his side towards Hisui and signalled with his eyes. Hisui turned to the same side and felt the King's warmth against his back. Goukou's arm came about his waist. The bed was soft and sleep lapped at Hisui in little waves. He yawned too, sensed with some small part of his brain that Goukou's breath had grown deeper, and allowed the dark tide to carry him away.
Woke slowly, refreshed, to the warm smell of the King's body beside him and the half-emerged state that seemed the natural accompaniment to that. Still a reflex with him, even if he rarely companioned the king these days. He turned his head to see if his lord was awake and found himself unexpectedly pulled over and into Goukou's arms. The king's mouth sought his and he gladly kissed Goukou back, gently at first and then harder as the king's passion increased. Goukou ducked his head and Hisui nibbled at his horns, delicate flick-flicks of his tongue about one while his fingertips just grazed the tip of the other. Goukou was making grunting sounds into Hisui's chest, and the king's hardness pressed against his legs below. The groans deepened. Hisui took the horn wholly into his mouth and sucked at it as he knew to do, and Goukou bucked against him and reached his fulfillment. He lay gasping and shaking in Hisui's arms for a moment, then relaxed. Hisui started to get up to fetch the cloth for washing but Goukou's strong hand pulled him back down. Their eyes met and Hisui's heart went still. The king had that look to him again, the one that belonged to the lord of the skies. Then Goukou turned away, moving over on to his face. "Embrace me," he said.
Hisui rose at once to crouch above him, his courtier's instincts mercifully swifter than either thought or feeling. His spirit he sent off to some quiet unmoving place far away while he set his mute body to doing what it was ordered to. Goukou was flat on his belly, so he wanted the River's Course, uncomfortable as that was by nature. Hisui parted the blue buttocks and pushed himself between them, slowly and carefully, and began to move the same way. "Harder," Goukou said. He moved harder. And as the rhythm became set and his body fell into the pattern it was accustomed to use with his favourites, his numbed spirit returned to tell him exactly what he was doing and to tell him he would pay for it.
I know, he thought. Yet will I obey my master, even if my master hates me afterwards for doing so. He was chancellor of the realm and a duke in his own right, from a family nearly as ancient as the king's; he was Goukou's chosen third, his companion and favourite from youth; he was one whom the Blue Dragon openly called friend. And he knew all that counted for nothing when the King was... from himself. He might find himself whipped and disgraced, maybe even executed, for doing this that he was commanded to. Blood will tell, Hisui thought, and it tells now. But still it is no matter. My king will return. I only pray that I am here to greet him when he does. And with that thought his fulfillment came on him and he lost himself in the heat of Goukou's body. In spite of his best efforts his eyesight clouded and his spirit was eclipsed for the moment.
He came back to find himself fallen on his side beside the king, and Goukou now stretched out on his back, eyes far away. Hisui rose and this time Goukou made no move to stop him.
He fetched the scented cloths and cleaned his master, then refolded the robe modestly across him. Turned around and washed himself and tidied all away.
"Bring the wine," Goukou's voice said. Hisui came back with the royal cup and the flagon and poured for him. "Do you not drink?" Goukou asked. And that was the King speaking, not the strange-eyed other who sometimes looked from the King's face.
"With your Majesty's leave." He fetched his own cup. Goukou nodded him down, and he reclined again at the king's side.
"I must be more careful," Goukou said. "You are necessary to my kingdom, maybe even more than I, and I must not lay burdens rashly on my good servants."
"It is no burden to do what your Majesty requires done. That has been my custom since the days of your Majesty's training and second nature to me now."
"My training must have been easier than bearing with my current moods. At least you had Shantsu-dono's company to console you."
Hisui smiled at the name. "I was young in those days. And even Shantsu-dono's company could not make it pleasant to teach the latter forms to your Majesty."
"Nor to bear with my attempts to perfect the mastery of them. You have suffered much in my service, and without complaint."
"I suffered no more than any other prince's third, and my soul found joy in the exercise even if my body did not. It was part of my service to your Majesty, and that service itself was and is a pleasure."
"In what way is it so, for one such as yourself? It is not the nature of gold dragons to bend the knee happily."
"Then either I am an unusual gold dragon or your Majesty is an unusual man. Which does my sovereign think it is?" and he gave Goukou a sideways smile. Goukou smiled back, if unwillingly.
"Hisui, you try your wiles on me in vain. I am myself again and not about to lie below any man now."
"Did your Majesty think of that as lying below? for certainly I did not, any more than I lie below when I mount upon a man for Cloud on a Mountain. Lying above means taking pleasure and lying below giving it, and however I company your Majesty I lie below."
"You think I did that for pleasure, just now?" The King gave him an unreadable look.
"There is pleasure and pleasure," Hisui said carefully. "Some pleasures are merely a respite from pain, and sometimes they must be as fierce as that pain to have any effect."
Goukou's face hardened into bitterness. "Am I as obvious as that?"
"My sovereign has had much to torment him since Lord Goujun's death. One does not recover from a grievous blow in a day, and especially not when it falls twice in the same place. For that, strong medicines may be needed indeed."
Goukou sighed. "I was young when Father died- too young. It was hard for me then, but there were things that had to be done and I had to do them. I had no leisure for thoughts of anything else. But now- it's as if Goujun's death has pulled me into the shadows, and all the worst of my heritage comes back to torment me."
"Any man alive carries the blood of the dragons of old in him, and in times of anger and pain he will feel his ancestors' breath on his neck."
"But mine are hotter and more terrible. Now I understand the shadow under which my generation has lived. For I was gotten in my father's outrage at the fate of the Black Dragon, and he gave me the same generation name as his own so that the Black Dragon might have the full number of his sons. Such was the reason, he said, but what it means is that there is no distinction between his generation and mine." He took a breath. "That we were not father and son but older and younger brothers. And so we have been unnatural from the start." He looked up before Hisui had time to smooth his expression out. "Say what you are thinking, Hisui. Do I seem mad to you?"
"Mad? No. But troubled to the point of seeing fancies, yes. Give me leave to speak bluntly, your Majesty. I am certain such a thought never came near your honoured father's heart. He would have been outraged at the notion. He bore himself as a father to you and required of you the obedience and duties of a son. Did he ever once depart from the rules laid down for the conduct between generations?"
"No, but--" He fell silent. Hisui waited. "I do not speak in criticism of my father, but he was not a man to look under the surfaces of things. He may have had one thought in his mind when he named us as he did, but some instinct he was not aware of recognized the truth. The wrong of my grandfather's death was the seed that gave us life, and it bred a wrong within us that appears when our actions come too close to those of the dragons of old. As they do--" he fell silent a moment, and then said with an odd doggedness, "--as they do at the Final Dance."
Hisui calmed the little flutter in his heart. This was getting too near to a matter he had no wish to think about. But at least the King had now revealed the source of his trouble, and to Hisui's relief it was something perfectly natural in a man of sensitivity. "The Final Dance is unsettling to most men, my lord."
"That it is not. Goushou was not affected by it at all. I could tell from his demeanour after."
"Lord Goushou and your honoured father had opposing natures that went far towards cancelling the natural sympathy that should have been between them. There was nothing for the Dance to build on. But those more close in spirit to their sires are troubled and made unhappy by the feelings that the Dance provokes."
"Was it so for you, in all honesty?"
"It was so for me when I danced with my father and again a little when I danced with my oldest son. I had looked forward to the first, thinking it would be like the ceremony after the First Crossing. I knew I was a man and that this would be the mark of it. But it left me feeling drunk and strange in the head, and heartsick at the world."
"And so it did me, and worse than heartsick. The fancies born of the Dance..." He fell silent.
Hisui looked at him in slight apprehension. He could remember, clear as if it were yesterday, the night of Goukou's Final Dance. All the highest nobles of the court had been present to witness the momentous event- all but Shantsu-dono, the prince's Older, and himself, the prince's Third. They had accompanied Goukou to the main courtyard and seen him standing in his place, awaiting his father the King's arrival: they saluted him, received his kiss on their cheeks, and then withdrew before King Gouerh appeared. This evening marked the end of Goukou's training and the end of the formal relationship between them, and their absence from the ceremony was the traditional sign of that.
In the Prince's apartments they bathed and changed into chamber robes, then spent the evening playing go and talking a little of the past four years.
"The prince is a man tonight," Hisui sighed. "It is wrong of me, but I feel a half-regret for what will be no more after today."
"Regret is a part of all change," Shantsu said. "And I think this last night the prince may still be partly a boy."
Shantsu looked at him consideringly. "Perhaps it was different for you. Whose company did you seek when you returned from the Dance, your Older's or your Third's, and what form did you first enact with him?"
Hisui frowned in recollection. "My Third, and I lay above him in the Mountain Cave. For I was a man and wished to have that settled in my mind." He did not understand the little quirk of Shantsu's eyebrows. "Is that not usual?"
"As I understand it, not. A man new-come from his Final Dance is as likely to want to lie below as above, and sometimes both at once. So it would be well for us to expect the Prince to ask for one of the threesome forms- the Province, perhaps, or the Brazier. If indeed he wishes only your company, I shall be pleased, of course."
"I see," Hisui said automatically. There was a pause as he sought to frame the personal question delicately. "You say, 'as I understand it.' Was your own experience then different from mine, Shantsu-dono?"
"The customs of the continents are different from the oceans. When the Dance is done we lie alone."
"That is hard," Hisui said in surprise. "Why are you denied relief? For the Dance has such a disordering effect--" He stopped, heat in his face. "Your pardon," he said above his embarrassment.
Shantsu had sat back and was regarding him with a line between his eyebrows. A moment later Hisui realized he was not angry, but pondering. He waited.
"The customs of the continents are different from the oceans," Shantsu said again. "We are more open in our speech on certain matters than you. The air of the fixed lands long ago softened the spirit of the ancient dragons in us, and we feel less need to avoid mention of things that touch on it. So I will say this, and forgive me if my bluntness offends you. We hold that the effects of the Final Dance are the same as those of the Great one, and one must deal with that fact."
Hisui felt his face burn again at such plainness, not to mention the shock of hearing a truth spoken out loud. "But if the Final Dance is as-- as arousing as the Great one-- the prince will-- naturally seek to lie above this evening--"
Shantsu said only, "Have you learned all the steps of the Great Dance?"
"Yes, a while ago."
"And you've performed it in its entirety with a practice partner?"
"And the male role in the Great Dance- which is it closer to in the Final, the Father's or the Son's?"
Hisui could not answer. His mind went automatically to the steps of the Great Dance, the largeness and the sweep and display as he circled about his more slow-moving partner... the way his father had danced about him as he turned in his own smaller space... Cold sweat went down his back.
"I can see..." he managed "if you think thus... why you lie alone after. But truly," he burst out, "that idea is totally foreign to us. It is-- it is--" it would be unforgivable to say 'wrong' to the prince's Older-- "it is not in our thoughts," he ended lamely, distress at his lack of control adding to the tumult of his feelings.
"I am sorry to have upset you," Shantsu said, making it worse. "I cannot tell you to forget what I have said, but you may put it down to the great differences between the oceans and the countries."
Hisui bent his head in acquiescence- at least he managed that gracefully- and sat with downcast eyes repeating the words of his mantra until the blood ceased pounding in his head and his mortification had becomes a small and distanced thing.
"Hisui," the king said, "what are you thinking?" He jumped and came back to the present, appalled to realize that he'd gone away.
"Forgive me, Majesty. I must be growing old to have lost myself like that. I was remembering the night of your Majesty's final dance."
"Ahh. Yes. That night. I remember it like a fever dream, with everything wrong and out of proportion. I was shocked to find you two in chamber robes and alone, but of course..."
"Of course it simplified matters," Hisui supplied when he fell silent. "It would have been too much to ask of you at that point, to endure while your chamberlain conducted the whole etiquette of disrobing."
Goukou snorted ruefully. "You were most adroit in getting me out of my clothes. I wondered afterwards how you managed so fast, given how long it took to get them on me."
"A man being dressed for his Final Dance rarely has the calmness of mind to consider what all those inner ties are for."
"So tell me honestly. Will I be equally as... confounded when I dance with Kaiei?"
"I doubt it. The experience of the Great Dance seems to lend a certain weight and balance to the soul--" taking that part which resembles the Father's. Hisui gave himself a mental shake. What did it matter that the two roles were alike? The climax of the Great Dance was also similar to what one did abed with one's favourites, and so what?
"I shall be glad if that is true," Goukou was saying. "Balance is what I seem to be lacking these days. Truly, Hisui, at times I think I am going mad. There is a thing I have recently remembered and now I cannot put it from my mind."
"And that is?" Hisui prompted when Goukou fell silent again.
"It was during my training. Shantsu-dono was explaining the point of the disciplinary forms to me since I couldn't see what role they might play among dragons consorting together. He told me this story. 'My second brother was once walking through the palace in the midst of his train, deep in conversation with a friend. The corridor being narrow, their passing jostled aside a smaller party that was forced in some haste to flatten itself against the wall. Later my brother learned that it was my father's favourite and his two servants whom he had so slighted before the Court. The matter was past mending, for talk had already done its work, and a prince cannot make a public apology to a commoner, even though he be the king's favourite. Had my brother acted from deliberate arrogance my father would have punished him for the slight to himself; but it was carelessness pure and simple, deserving only of a rebuke. My father was much displeased by the event and it showed in his treatment of my brother; equally my brother was desperate for a way to make amends, for though thoughtless by nature he has a warm heart and a great respect for Rinshu-dono himself. Seeing this my father commanded me to enact Glowing Stones with him, which I did, so that my brother might be both chastised and consoled, and there the matter rested.'"
Hisui waited but Goukou said no more.
"And what is there in that to trouble my lord?"
Goukou looked away. "The fact that Shanten-oh watched while they enacted the form. Shantsu-dono mentioned it as if it were nothing unusual." Hisui said nothing- could say nothing. "You do not think that odd? I would have died of shame had my father ever seen me copulating," Goukou said fiercely, "even had I lain above, and much less---" He stopped, hands clenched.
"The customs of the continents are different from the oceans," was all that Hisui found to say.
"How different can they be? What is decency among us would seem not to be regarded there, and yet we have always held the land dragons to be a more gentle race than ourselves. Are we mistaken about them? Are they indeed lost to shame? I cannot believe it- I will not believe it-- but still--" Hisui's mind was a blank, unmoving as stone. Goukou's eyes met his and there was a desperate light in them.
"I have no certainty in me any more," Goukou said. "Everything I once knew to be true now seems in doubt. Landscapes I knew from childhood have changed their shape: I never know but that a mountain may suddenly appear where a river should be and I will dash myself against it. There has been no safety for my heart and soul since Goujun's death. I am in darkness; I sense terrible things threatening me but I cannot see their shape to combat them. All this time I have kept the memory of Shantsu-dono as a talisman to guard me, and the example of his uprightness and decency as a light to guide me in the blackness of this night; but now- now my enemy whispers at me, what if I am wrong about him as well? What if there is no light anywhere?"
Hisui's heart was in turmoil. The king had come too close and too suddenly to the truth- no, only what I suspect the truth to be- the possibility that he yet believed to be fact. Fear was on him that Goukou would read his thoughts, would make that easy and inevitable leap to the truth- /no/, only what I suspect the truth to be... There was a buzzing in his head. 'I must say something,' he thought, 'speak of something else,' but there were no words for him at all, and his desperation grew.
"You do think me mad. Your face betrays you. You are right. Since I took to the skies I have been two men, and one of them will bring chaos upon his kingdom and his family. What will you do now, my lord Chancellor, knowing that your king is a danger to all?"
"That is not true," Hisui said automatically. "I do not- do not think you mad."
"Then why the fear in your eyes?"
He could not stop himself from looking away. "That is something else- a private trouble--"
His heart lurched hideously. The rage and pain of the king's voice was like a blow to the face. Shock brought him back to himself in an instant: himself, the king's chancellor, the man with the responsibility and the ability to keep the king's mind at peace. He found the thing he needed to say coming straight off his tongue, just as it should.
"No, Majesty. Your servant is not lying." He looked Goukou in the eye. "He is concealing his thoughts from you, and he is doing it badly. For that I ask your pardon and your correction. My clumsiness deserves it. A minister must never be of two minds. If I have things in my heart I wish not to reveal to your Majesty, your Majesty should not have the least suspicion that they are there."
"Amongst all this fol-de-rol," Goukou said in a way that made Hisui's stomach shrink in on itself, "are you going to tell me what it is you have in your heart?"
"No, my lord." The king is two men? Then we will deal with them both. Four kings were not too many for me when I was much younger than I am now. He knew he was balanced on a knife-edge, but that knowledge gave him on the contrary a feeling of confidence and exhilaration.
"Even if I order you?"
Goukou's face went black. "You will feel my wrath for this."
"Gladly. I am your majesty's chancellor: it is part of my duties. I have not eased your majesty's disquiet, merely added to it. That is a great failure on my part and deserves correction. Shall I ring for them to fetch the bamboo?"
Goukou stared at him. The silence dragged. Hisui waited for what would be with a mind like the blue winter sky, serene and empty. After a moment Goukou's expression shifted minutely. Hisui watched it happen and waited still. Goukou said, "It does nothing to ease my soul that there are things my Chancellor will not tell me."
"There are many things I will not tell your Majesty. Affairs of my family, relations among my sons, my own feelings. They are the concerns of a private man and do not touch on the welfare of the state; and in this I am more fortunate than your Majesty, whose thoughts and feelings must have an effect on all of us."
"They do," Goukou said miserably, "and that knowledge troubles me more than I can say."
"It need not. My lord, I beg you set your mind at rest on this score. You feel yourself at war with yourself now, at a time when any man feels uncertain--"
"Hisui, do not tell me that my fears are groundless. You know they are not. I have changed since I came from the skies. I do not know what I may do when I see through those other eyes."
"So what has your Majesty done since he came from the skies and looked through those other eyes? In what way have you acted like the dragons of old? What kin have you slain, what youths have you violated, what oaths have you broken?"
"But the desire is there!"
"The impulse is there. And no sooner does it appear than your Majesty slays it out of hand. Goukou of the Western Ocean is too great a warrior to be conquered by phantoms."
"Am I indeed?"
"Yes." Hisui took Goukou's empty cup and put it on the bedside table with his own. He turned back and held out his arms. Goukou came into them. Hisui took one of Goukou's hands and placed his own against it.
"In five days time," he said into the King's ear, "you will dance with Lord Kaiei. At the end of it you two will stand like this, breast to breast and palm to palm, as you complete the last circuit. And then he will step back and bow to you, and you will kiss him like a kinsman on each cheek, and then you will turn and come back to your apartments here. And I or Saikoku or any man you wish will be waiting for you. That is all that will happen because that is all that can happen. You may believe this because I your Chancellor tell you it is so."
After a long moment Goukou said, "I believe you. Not only because you are my Chancellor to whom I have entrusted the safety of my realm, but because you have known a fear akin to my own. Be easy: I will not question you about it again nor why it troubles you now. I am sorry for you, but glad there is one who understands my plight." He turned his head and kissed Hisui, and Hisui kissed him back, and soon they had fallen back upon the cushions as the red mist of arousal surrounded them both.
For the first time since his young manhood Hisui found himself desiring, and desiring fiercely, to lie below. It was a need of his soul even more than his body, and he had to fight to keep from giving Goukou the customary sign for it. But the small wise voice within him held his hand still. You want to make amends for yor betrayal by taking the King within you. He will know that is your reason and guess what crime you wish to atone for. The fear of that let him thrust the yearning aside. It became a silenced ache in his mind, present but ignorable, like the bodily pain he'd known in the days of the King's training. He clasped his lord to him and took his kisses as their limbs writhed together in the Serpent's Coils, and willed that to be enough.
It was not the first time he'd spoken only a partial truth to the King but it was the first time he'd done so with intent to lead the King astray, and the first time he'd succeeded. The sadness of that weighed on him, but he knew he had no choice in the matter. The King is from himself. He bears that burden as well as all the others of these unsettled times. My suspicions are only suspicions. I will not trouble his heart by revealing them. The King pressed hard against him, his breath disordered and his eyes glazed and beginning to wander.
Even if I am right, the land dragons have kept this secret from us for millennia. No harm if it keeps for a while longer. And with that thought Hisui let himself disappear for a space into the sensations of his body.
Aug 04- Feb 05